Counterpoint to death watch for newspapers

28 10 2009

Jonathan Knee of the Media Program at Columbia Business School opines in Barron’s that newspapers are doing just fine.

Until recently, many newspapers had profit margins exceeding 30%. By 2008, the industry’s average margin had fallen to the mid-teens. The speed and magnitude of this decline have resulted in wrenching changes in the way these historically stable businesses must operate.The continuing drama shouldn’t distract from real earnings power. Many newspapers still have almost double the profitability of other media sectors, such as movies, music and books — which have long struggled to achieve margins of even 10%.

Knee concedes that the Internet has hurt newspapers and that Web media deliver value that newspapers can’t match. But he notes that the downside to the Internet is information overload and says newspapers may or may not play a key role in guiding customers through the cacaphony. It depends on whether they join the race for solutions to finding and identifying credible, balanced, and researched content on the Web.

THE NEWSPAPER OF TOMORROW will indeed be very different in terms of how it is produced and delivered, what is in it, and how profitable it is. It will be part of a much more crowded and complex news and information ecosystem.

Operators must aggressively focus on cost and cooperation, designing truly distinctive offerings that leverage their advantages in this newly competitive landscape.

Policymakers currently have plenty of legitimate targets of their attention without worrying about the fate of newspapers or trying to keep change from happening. If they keep out of the way, news junkies in particular should anticipate an era of unprecedented plenty. And investors will be well-rewarded by backing managers who appreciate the continuing, if diminished, profit potential of this new environment.

 





Rocky Mountain News publisher’s post mortem

1 10 2009

John Temple, former publisher of the former Rocky Mountain News, reflects on its demise in his keynote address at the UC Berkeley Media Technology Summit this week. It is a remarkably insightful and self-critical examination. The shorthand version:

Know what business you’re in.
Know your customers.
Know your competition.
Know your goal.
Have a strategy and be committed to pursuing it.
Measure, measure, measure.
Keep new ventures free from the rules of the old.
Let the people running a new venture do what’s best for their business, regardless of the potential impact on the old.
To compete in a new medium, you have to understand it.
Invest in R&D.rocky-mountain-news-600x769

Temple’s prediction for the industry is grim:

There’s still too much of a sense of entitlement in the industry. The Associated Press spends too much time making the case that copyright violation is the problem bringing the industry down when the industry should be focused on building new and better products and services. Are companies making the same mistake in this decade that the Rocky made in the ‘90s, not understanding the competition? I think so.

However, his prescriptions for newspapers could improve the prognosis:

Newspapers should think bigger at the same time as they think smaller. They should look for opportunities to scale. They’re still too focused on unique, market by market solutions. …

Newspapers could end the criticism of an ever-shrinking amount of content if they would partner more with others and invite more people to participate on their sites. (When people say what you often hear, that newspapers seem thinner and thinner, we can’t forget that it also creates a negative impression of what’s happening to their Web sites.) …

Newspapers have traditionally served a small percentage of the businesses in their communities. … Newspapers should find more ways for more local businesses to reach potential customers.

Newspapers should give consumers more control. They’re still thinking too much about themselves and not enough about what the consumer wants.

Newspapers should stop looking longingly in the rear view mirror at 30% margins. …

And, of course, finally, the most difficult recommendation of all, newspapers should stop making decisions about new business opportunities based on how they’ll affect their legacy business. The main newspaper cannot dictate the shape of the future.





The Costs and Benefits of Distraction

1 06 2009

distractionJust when I was considering a severe diet of reduced social media consumption because of the distraction and wasted time, Twitter alerted me to this excellent article in New York magazine.

The irony is that through Twitter I found wonderful information, very related to my interests, that makes me even more concerned about what’s happened to my ability to focus during the digital age. Further irony: while reading it, I was semi-watching a Harry Potter movie with one daughter and texting another. Further irony: consumption of this digital media led to a very meaningful live, in-person conversation with the first daughter.

The article’s headline, “In Defense of Distraction,” is somewhat misleading because the writer concentrates mostly on the detriments of overstimulation and distraction before ending on a somewhat forced optimistic note.

By the way, what do you know about the Boston Molasses Disaster?





Can TucsonCitizen.com rise Phoenix-like from newspaper ashes?

25 05 2009

Gannett folded the newspaper, but the Web site TucsonCitizen.com lives on — albeit with an undefined mandate.

Cynics may see this as Gannett’s attempt to drain the last drops of revenue from the corpse. It’s hard to get past cynicism and believe there’s a bright future when the article about the transition is so frankly confounded about what lies ahead and how to get there.

TucsonCitizen.com will be the voice of Tucson.
That’s the goal.
How is that going to happen? There’s the rub.
Over the next two weeks and beyond, the site will be redesigned and improved to give Tucsonans a place where they can have a say on any number of topics.
What you see now is a site created for a metro daily newspaper’s online operation. That’s over.
What will come is a more user-friendly site created to reflect the fast-paced, edgy nature of the Internet age.
Most of what’s been discussed about this new site has been long on generalities and short on specifics.
I wish I could reverse that and give you more details but we’re still working that out.
It goes on to say maybe it will be a kind of umbrella site for local bloggers, where individual bloggers benefit from the traffic that their collective mass will attract. The article gives a not to the dreaded conceptual nemisis of newspapers: citizen journalism. It half-heartedly says, “OK citizens, here’s your electronic journal. Come do your thing.” It even promises some instructions in how to be a journalist and help in obtaining a public record if anyone is interested.
The whole thing is actually painful to read.
I don’t know any better than the authors how citizen journalism will rise up to replace the sort of journalism we got from newspapers for a century or so. But I find it hard to imagine it arising from the body of a dead newspaper’s leftover Web site.




Latest potential savior for newspapers: The Big Kindle

4 05 2009

Big KindleFrom The New York Times Sunday:

But it is Amazon, maker of the Kindle, that appears to be first in line to try throwing an electronic life preserver to old-media companies. As early as this week, according to people briefed on the online retailer’s plans, Amazon will introduce a larger version of its Kindle wireless device tailored for displaying newspapers, magazines and perhaps textbooks.





Newspapers and their Web sites, a deadly duality?

27 04 2009

Jeff Sonderman has an interesting post about how difficult it is to produce a great newspaper and a great community web site at the same time, and how the attempt is killing newspapers.

He makes some good points from an insider’s perspective. I like to see someone thinking about compromise rather than the usual rants of traditional vs. online news media, even with the great challenges Sonderman lists:

Production and planning. A lot goes on behind the scenes at a daily news organization. The major meeting of the day comes in late afternoon to plan what stories go on what print pages for the next day. In a web-centered newsroom, you might have that meeting at 6 am to be on top of the morning traffic peak. Tough choice: schedule your day and planning around the 24-hour web cycle or the daily morning print cycle? You can’t really do both (unless you just meet all day, which is even worse).

• Staff specialties. A web-centered newsroom would have a team of web developers working constantly on special projects and beta experiments. In reality, most newsrooms are lucky to have one or two people capable of this, and even then they may not be given the time or freedom to innovate. Tough choice: spend salary on a print copy editor or a web developer. You can’t do both.

• Writing style and content focus. Most newspaper-based news organizations are still writing “newspaper stories” and posting them online. It’s what they know. A web-focused organization, however, would rarely write a single long block of words to tell a story. We would focus on shorter, conversational-style, blog-like entries — heavy on links and embedded media. Tough choice: write for a print style audience or a web community. You can’t really do both well.

However, more is killing newspapers than the Web. The business model is antiquated on many levels, and the death spiral started before even a few people turned to the Web for news.





Do scoops still matter in a digital world?

13 04 2009

Funny, I hadn’t thought about this at all.

When I was a newspaper reporter in the last era (through 1995) getting the scoop drove the industry. Nearly anyone who worked there would tell you that the real downfall of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch began the day the St. Louis Globe-Democrat folded. Oh, we still prided ourselves on scooping the broadcasters, but it wasn’t the same. I will always remember the outrage I felt when a TV reporter got wind of an investigation I was working on and went on the air the night before we published with a 30-second story about “questions being raised” regarding a developer’s relationship with local officials. His story had nothing, but I had lost my scoop, and the satisfaction for the weeks of work I had devoted to the story evaporated.

When print dominated journalism, the paper with the scoop could bask in it a full 24 hours, relishing how the competition was writhing while struggling to catch up. You accelerated your efforts to get a great second-day story that scooped them again.

In the mid-1990s it shook the industry when the first major dailies started “scooping themselves” by publishing stories on their Web sites before they could get the dead-tree edition on the streets. Now it’s routine and expected. The result? A scoop may last minutes at most.

The loss of this motivator could have sweeping consequences on the practice of what is left of journalism, perhaps not all bad. The egos of reporters lusting for the big scoop surely led to many an ethical lapse or unbalanced treatment of a story. Perhaps now that there is little reward for being first, the  motive will be getting it right or getting an angle or insight no one yet has considered. That would be a good thing.